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by Frank Shortt
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Growing up in Appalachia was quite a challenge for a teenager just approaching
puberty with a spirit of independence already sprouting. Things I was seeing at home kept me looking for greener pastures. I would
use any reason to stay with another family and would do the hardest work without being asked. Many times I stayed with the Whiteds,
the Davis’ on Davis Mountain, and mostly at the Pruitts’ home. The Pruitts had a television which tended to alert me to the things
I was missing at home, or so I thought.
Grandpa Addison lived up at the head
of Shack Fork, a meandering little creek that finally emptied into Grassy Creek about five miles below. Grandpa’s house had been built
by my paternal Grandfather, Jeff Shortt, but had been abandoned for what Grandpa Shortt felt was a better location down on Grassy
Creek. At first it only consisted of three rooms but when Grandpa Addison obtained it, he added on another two bedrooms and a porch
which wound its way halfway around the enclosure. He needed more rooms due to his growing family which finally reached a total of
twelve. That old porch was witness to many and sundry happenings.
to support such a large family, Grandpa worked in the mine at Premier Coal Company having to walk the whole distance, which was about
four miles one way. He supplemented his income by raising corn, oats, potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, and a small patch of
tobacco as well as other “truck” vegetables. He always kept a few hogs, several head of cattle and a horse or two and sometimes a
mule. He did his own blacksmith work making such things as small nail pullers, harness buckles, horseshoes, plow parts, wagon parts
and even spikes and nails. All the children, when reaching the age to be able to hold a hoe, were herded to the fields to accomplish
as much work as their little bodies were capable of doing. The majority of the farming was done by the children as Grandpa had to
work in the mine to have any ready cash on hand. I can remember my uncle Curtis directing the work when he was a young man and this
fell to each succeeding boy as an older sibling flew the coop.
ready help dwindled, he had no alternative but to come and get my mother’s children to fill in where his children had been before.
We used to get up very early in the morning on corn hoeing day or oat harvesting day and trudge up the hill about a mile or so to
give Grandpa a hand. We respected him because he was our mother’s father. This kept up until Grandpa was no longer able to farm, probably
when he reached his late seventies.
A typical day would begin, if it was a
corn hoeing day, with all the children picking out the lightest and smoothest handled hoe. We feared blisters which were inevitable
when the hoe was too heavy or still had a few knots on the handle. This ritual usually led to some arguments and some tears as we
established the “pecking order” of the hoes. We would then trudge to the cornfield to begin the incessant hoeing of the weeds that
were bound and determined to take over the neat rows of corn. We all tried to keep up with our older uncles all to no avail due to
their superior strength and endurance. When we would sometimes reach the end of the row first, this was a time of rejoicing and celebration.
We had few celebrations.
Around noon, Grandpa would say, “dinner time” which
in the east means the midday meal. We would all go to the old aluminum wash basin to wash our hands in the same water with the same
bar of lye soap. The table would be set with Grandma’s not-so-fancy china and the place for sitting was a long bench along each side
of the table made of rough lumber sometimes hand hewn by Grandpa. Grandpa would usually ask one of us younger ones to “turn thanks”
as he knew that this was a custom in the Shortt home. He rarely asked the blessing as he repeatedly said, “God knows whether or not
we are thankful for our food”. After blessing, the pone of corn bread was passed around and we were allowed to take a good portion
by breaking it off the pone. Then the “soup beans” [pinto beans cooked in fat back bacon] were passed around and the older children
helped themselves and assisted the younger ones in the dipping. Sometimes there would be fresh tomatoes or green onions to go with
the “soup beans”. I don’t know of any better eating to this day as the corn bread was usually made of “home ground” meal that Grandpa
had ground at the grist mill in Cedar Bluff. Umm, I can still taste that bread!! Grandma Addison was an artisan in the baking of corn
bread and biscuits.
After the meal was over, we usually went to the front porch,
the one that wound all the way around the front of the house, to rest, let our food settle and coerce Grandpa into playing his antique
five string banjo. He’d play tunes like, “Soldier’s Joy”, “Arkansas Traveler”, “Goin’ up Cripple Creek”, or some other old tune that
probably had it’s beginnings during the Civil War. We knew that the longer he played, the longer we could stay out of the cornfield,
so we would keep naming tunes that popped into our heads just to keep the fire burning.
Pretty soon Grandpa would say,
“Time to get back to work”!! “We’ve lazed around
long enough”. Frankie, go down to the spring and get us a fresh bucket of water and try not to get any drugs [dregs] in it”.
Off I’d go, obediently, get the bucket filled and lug it slowly up the hill so that we all could have a cool drink before returning
to the fields. This was the hardest time to go to work. What we all craved was to get under the shady Damson plum tree and take a
nap, but Grandpa’s corn needed hoeing. Usually the last one to get going would be Evan Adams, my first cousin. For some reason, Grandpa
favored him above all of the other grandchildren. I suppose it could have been because his dad was always in and out of jail for different
The afternoon dragged on with no stopping place in sight.
Every row became longer and longer. If the corn was head high the blades would cut into our bare arms leaving large, red welts for
us to carry home. If we seemed to lag a little, Grandpa’s voice would resound in our ears, “do you want me to tell your folks that
you were too lazy to keep up with the rest of us?” This usually got us going according to the code of the mountains. Somehow, Evan
could lag as much as he liked, within reason.
If the day happened to be a Saturday,
Grandpa would allow us to knock off a little early. We’d all trudge back to the house footsore, weary and browbeaten to be told to
go on home “so Stell can feed you”. Usually one or two of my uncles would approach Grandpa for enough money to go to the old Raven,
Va. Theater for a Saturday night movie. He’d usually oblige them and include Evan as well. All my brothers and sisters were left out
unless one or two of us were fortunate enough to have saved up the twelve cents that it took to go to the movies then. We were usually
sent home with one of the older siblings carrying a tale of woe about one of the younger ones actions during the day which would warrant
a whipping from either mom or dad when we arrived home. It was usually me that got the striping.
I carried a grudge against my Grandpa up until the time I returned home from the Air Force for the first time. I went up to see him
on a Saturday afternoon and just sat on the old porch like we used to when I was a child and was coerced into hoeing his corn. I even
went to the spring and got him a bucket of fresh water to celebrate the occasion.
“Grandpa, I began, I have been carrying a grudge against you for quite a long while. “I want to unburden my soul if you’ll let me.
“Go ahead”, he replied and I commenced to tell him why I carried the
grudge. He was taken aback and acted as though it had never happened.
“You shoulda told me then if something was bothering you, Frankie, why I always tried to be fair with all my grandchildren.”
I let the remark pass and continued on. “You would never allow any of Edd Shortt’s kids to speak back to you and if we tried to explain
anything to you your reply was “Your dad will hear about this”.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but if I’ve ever done anything that offended you, I’m sorry”.
I accepted his left hand apology walked over and hugged him soundly and told him I forgave him. He actually wept. As I left, I couldn’t
help thinking, “Grandpa, this is the last time I’ll ever see you alive.” He somehow looked much older than his years and I must say
that I did receive several letters from him after I went back to my permanent base. He would type them out on a little portable typewriter,
never bothering to correct the typographical errors.
Going back to the beginning
of my little story I made mention that I loved to be away from home no matter where it was. I’ve stayed with the poorest in the County,
the richest, the worst in hygiene, ones with the worst food and slept in squalid conditions, all just to get away from what I considered
a bad atmosphere at home. After I arrived to basic training in Texas, I soon learned that I didn’t have it so bad at home.
What I was meaning to say was, I couldn’t wait to go up to grandpa’s house. I must have been a glutton for punishment and didn’t realize
it until I departed that region. I could never talk in Grandpa’s presence without fear of reprisal. At night, when we all retired,
Evan and I would sometimes talk late into the night and if either of us giggled too loudly, we could expect the inevitable “razor
stropping”. It seems, maybe I’m just sensitive, that the most blows always landed on me. If Evan was up for the summer, I would be
assured a willing playmate. He couldn’t be blamed if Grandpa favored him. We loved to play cowboys, Tarzan, or anything else that
we had heard on radio or seen in the movies. Also, I used to love Grandma Addison’s biscuits and gravy and her homemade sausages.
She always seemed to somehow pity my father’s children. I believe she was a genuine grandmother.
When Grandpa became too old to man the farm and to maintain a normal life, he moved to Delaware to live with one of my uncles. He
had owned a shotgun, an over and under 22-410 that I had always coveted. He eventually left it to Evan. I was chagrined because I
felt that he should have left it to his namesake. I visited the old homestead after I got out of the Air Force and had lived in San
Jose, Ca. for a number of years. The yard had grown up with locust trees, the roof was falling in and vandals had removed even the
chimney stones to be used in another house farther up the mountain. I strolled over to the area where the blacksmith forge had been
housed and began digging in the ground around it. To my surprise, I found some actual items that Grandpa had made on the hand turned
forge: a long spike, three brass harness buckles, a chisel, and a wagon wrench.
Grandpa’s Legacy! I now have them on a rustic plaque in my garage.